On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, L-1900-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Winkelstein and Yannotti.
Following a jury trial, defendant Scott Knoedler appeals from a May 17, 2007 judgment for plaintiff Kevin Farrell. The sole issue at trial was whether Knoedler or Farrell was the driver of an automobile that was involved in an accident on August 4, 2003, when Farrell was seriously injured. The jury concluded that Knoedler was the driver of the automobile, and the court entered judgment in favor of Farrell in the stipulated sum of $150,000.
On appeal, Knoedler claims he is entitled to a new trial because (1) Farrell's counsel made improper closing arguments; (2) the police officer who responded to the accident scene was barred from giving his opinion as to who was driving the vehicle; (3) Knoedler was not permitted to cross-examine Farrell regarding his municipal court plea; (4) the judge precluded the jury from being informed of the parties' insurance liability limits; and (5) the testimony of Dr. Anmuth, a doctor who examined Knoedler at the hospital after the accident, should have been barred because he was called by Farrell as a fact witness without being properly named in Farrell's answers to interrogatories. We conclude that these arguments are without merit and affirm.
The trial produced the following evidence. On August 3, 2003, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Trevor Sheppard, Farrell, and Knoedler left their home in Farrell's truck. Knoedler was the driver. They went to a bar, where they stayed and were drinking until closing at 2:00 a.m. Knoedler drove the men back to their house. During the ride, Sheppard sat on the passenger side because he is deaf in his right ear. Farrell sat in the middle of the truck's bench seat.
At the house, the men continued to drink. After about an hour, Knoedler drove the men to the Borgata in Atlantic City. He drove because he was the "most sober." Again, Farrell sat in the middle and Sheppard sat on the right.
At approximately 4 or 5 a.m., after drinking additional alcoholic beverages, they left the Borgata. They do not remember whether Farrell or Knoedler was driving.
Their truck ran a red light and collided with another vehicle. The driver-side airbag deployed. Farrell was ejected from the truck and was pinned under the passenger side front tire. He was in a coma for several weeks, suffered head trauma, broken ribs and a broken leg. Sheppard and Knoedler suffered less serious injuries. The parties filed claims for damages against each other and against the Borgata.*fn1
Farrell was issued a citation for driving under the influence (DWI). On the November 24, 2003 municipal court trial date, the prosecutor conceded that he likely could not prove that Farrell was operating the vehicle. Farrell agreed to plead guilty to reckless driving with a civil reservation and the DWI charge was dismissed. In the civil case, the motion court granted Farrell's motion to bar the admission of his municipal court guilty plea, except for impeachment purposes.
On May 1, 2007, the day before trial, the court granted Farrell's motion to preclude the police officer who responded to the accident scene, Michael O'Hala, from giving an opinion as to who was the driver of the vehicle. The court also denied Knoedler's motion to bar the testimony of Dr. Anmuth, the doctor who examined Knoedler at the hospital following the accident, to prevent the jury from learning of a statement Knoedler made to Anmuth during the examination. Finally, the court denied Knoedler's motion to have the jury told of the parties' insurance policy limits.
The trial began May 2, 2007. On May 7, 2007, at the conclusion of Farrell's counsel's closing argument, the court denied Knoedler's motion for a mistrial. That same day, the jury returned a verdict that Knoedler was the driver of the vehicle.
We first address Knoedler's claim that the court erred by excluding the opinion testimony of Officer O'Hala as to who was driving the truck at the time of the accident. We agree with the ...